Gratuitous sour milk symbols

In “Milk Bottles” Sherwood Anderson, possibly writing on an unbearably hot summer night in Chicago, speaks in the voice of a writer much like Anderson. (Many of Anderson’s main characters are writers, often described by non-writers).   Writing on an unbearably hot summer night in Chicago, Anderson’s narrator, “goes off his head”. He quits writing to take a walk, and on his walk meets another writer — an advertising man who wants to be a serious writer. (As an advertising man this second writer is even more like Anderson, though in other ways he might be a bit more like the ex-realist romance writer Hamlin Garland). The second writer reads him what he himself thought was a great piece about Chicago writer that he had just written, but it’s really just wishful, dreamy romantic boosterism, though the narrator doesn’t tell him so.

It turns out, however, that before he had written the crappy piece, the second writer had written a much better piece about Chicago, bitter and realistic, but that since he had attributed its negative tone to the transient bad mood induced a day spent writing advertising copy (a successful day businesswise , but a horrible day otherwise), he had discarded the piece.

This advertising copy for condensed milk. We do not see the piece that had been thrown away, but we do know sour milk played a part in it. And all through Anderson’s own story sour milk keeps showing up — four times in nine pages. This is not unrealistic — on hot afternoons in Chicago before the coming of refrigeration, sour is what milk did — but four times is a lot.

But why is gratuitous sour milk symbolism so universally condemned? Why should authors try to fool readers by slipping the symbols in artfully? Why not just slam them in there and dare the readers to do something about it? Anderson’s narrator starts off by admitting to having gone almost nuts. Maybe the gratuitous symbolism is just a part of that, part of the characterization. The way the story is written we can’t even really be sure which of the three authors is responsible — the narrator, the author he tells about, or Anderson himself. By the end none of the three seemed really capable of keeping track of things and probably none of them could remember who was who.

Many of Anderson’s first person narrators are inarticulate, and there’s reason to believe that Anderson was bit inarticulate too. Faced with an inarticulate passage, we can never be sure whether Anderson had brilliantly succeeded in portraying the character’s inarticulation, the way Nabokov would, or whether the symbiosis between his own inarticulation and the character’s inarticulation allowed Anderson to find optimal inarticulation the ideal place where the two curves crossed — the very opposite of Flaubert’s cogent and perspicacious presentation of the confusion and incomprehension of his hapless, dumfounded subjects.

Anderson was poorly educated and not well read. His secret was that he had no censor, and while one thing this meant was that like Freudians and liberationists he wrote a lot about sex, it wasn’t the same thing at all. Freudians and liberationists still have the censor — they just adjust its settings and produce genteel, depressing smut. Anderson wrote about awkward and embarrassing things of all kinds, not just sex, and he didn’t write about dramatic maudit awkwardness but about boring, ordinary awkward people. Like Schnitzler, perhaps, Anderson was writing about Freud’s raw data, but without putting a Freudian analysis on it.

Anderson was much like the people he wrote about. At least since Henry James people in the biz have been assuring us that authenticity and sincerity are irrelevant to literary merit, but are they actually a detriment? It seems to me that when Flaubert or the Goncourts or Zola studied up on like zoo animals in order to write about ehm, people with whom they would never dream of socializing, regardless of how masterfully they wrote, something important was lost.

Anderson is generally regarded as proto-: proto-Hemingway, proto-Faulkner, proto- Southern Gothic. He could just as well be regarded as proto-Holden Caulfield or proto-noir or proto-absurdist, but why not take him for what he is? The Hemingway comparison is especially unjust, because one of Anderson’s great accomplishments was to succeed in writing non-edifying fiction, not merely because Hemingway was shitty to Anderson, but because what Hemingway ended up doing was write a new kind of edifying fiction, less genteel than the previous version but still glorifying his tragic, nobly damaged protagonists.

In real life, Anderson didn’t believe in the American Dream, but he lived three versions of it. First the rags-to-riches story when he became a paint manufacturer after a white trash upbringing, second the forget-about-success-and-throw-it-all-way escape-from-conventionality story when he left everything and never looked back, and finally the still-active advertising-man-writes-serious-literature story. Everyone since has just been replaying these cliches.


Here’s a weirdness sample, from a different book. The married narrator is thinking of his fantasy girl, Natalie. He is fully aware that he is being absurd, but the censor is off:

Down in the office he had thought of her body as a house within which she lived. Why could not more than one person live within such a house?….There was the thought about Natalie being a house kept clean and sweet for living, a house into which one might go gladly and joyfully.

Could he, a washing machine manufacturer of a Wisconsin town, stop on the street a college professor and say, “I want to know, Mr. College Professor, if your house is clean and sweet for living so that people may come and live in it and, if it is so, I want you to tell me how you went about it to cleanse your house”.

The notion was absurd. It made one laugh to even think of any such thing. There would have to be new figures of speech, a new way of looking at things. For one thing people would have to be more truly aware of themselves than they had ever been before.”

Published in: on September 11, 2015 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

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